CROSSROAD BLUES BY ACE ATKINS AND MARCO FINNEGAN
Art
Characterization
Plot
Summary
Myth, music, and mystery combine in CROSSROAD BLUES. Ace Atkins helms the graphic adaptation of his novel, with Marco Finnegan handing the art. Together, they weave a mystery around a true American myth -- the recordings of Robert Johnson.
87 %
Down To The Crossroads

CROSSROAD BLUES adapts Ace Atkins’ novel of the same name into a gritty noir of New Orleans. The graphic novel, with art by Marco Finnegan, features Detective Nick Travers as he searches around New Orleans and beyond to uncover a lost musical treasure — the recordings of Robert Johnson.

Black and Blues

To understand CROSSROAD BLUES, you have to understand Robert Johnson. The man recognized as the father of the blues grew up in Mississippi and traveled around the South, learning his craft. One famous account tells how Johnson was a terrible guitar player at first. He improved only by journeying to a crossroads and meeting the devil, who gave him skill in exchange for his soul. Regardless of the legend, Johnson crafted the backbone of the blues. He recorded only twenty-nine songs in his life, but most have gone on to be classics of the genre. Eric Clapton praised Johnson as the father of the blues, even covering Johnson’s “Crossroads” during his time in Cream.

Johnson’s legend hangs over CROSSROAD BLUES. The story begins with Johnson in a bar, meeting up with a man outside. Ace Atkins works a powerful scene here, as interpretation is up to the reader. The meeting can be construed as a supernatural nod, or just another greedy record executive. The legend of Johnson helps, but it’s the gothic noir artwork by Marco Finnegan that really pushes this scene. The use of black and white really makes the scene feel stark and forward. However, it also manages to capture both a supernatural and noir feel, especially when the reader knows the legend.

CROSSROAD BLUES
CROSSROAD BLUES Page 13. Courtesy of Image Comics

The story remains its own entity throughout. Atkins keeps the mystery building, using his main character of Travers perfectly. Travers isn’t only a detective; he’s also a music lover. When he learns about a possible discovery of lost Johnson recordings, he’s doubly interested. It’s a smart move that gives the protagonist a unique connection to the case.

Shuffling Along

The story moves along solidly from there, as Travers meets up with various people around New Orleans for info on the case. This allows for some stark but accurate shots of New Orleans architecture, and a few words on the city’s music. However, it also shows something of a problem with the story. The pace moves speedily at first, but tends to drag more as it goes on. It’s odd for a mystery, since they normally tend to start slow and pick up as they move. The length of the book (152 pages) may play a part in that.

HEAVENLY BLUES Writer Ben Kahn Interview at Flame Con 2017

That doesn’t mean the story isn’t still interesting. Travers’ investigation uncovers many leads and characters, including an albino African-American named Cracker. Cracker shows an almost fanatical devotion to Johnson. He knows the location of the records, but refuses to share them with anyone. He says it wasn’t what “RJ” would want. The story introduces a unique antagonist as well. Travers races for the records against a man bearing a particular resemblance to Elvis Presley.

Nothing But a Hound Dog

CROSSROAD BLUES
CROSSROAD BLUES Page 20. Courtesy of Image Comics

The symbolism of an Elvis look-a-like speaks volumes. Elvis’s success was criticized by some as him simply imitating African-American rock & roll artists of the time. Simply put, Elvis made rhythm and blues acceptable for the largely white masses. The idea of a look-a-like searching for the lost records of the father of the blues gains more weight in this context. “Elvis” is again “stealing” from African-American music. This rings truer in today’s world, after LA LA LAND received similar accusations towards its depictions of white people “saving” jazz.

The critical context makes Elvis a unique mirror to Travers as well. Travers deal not only with “Elvis” but with Pascal Cruz, who owns a gentrified “House of Blues” type club. Travers regards the man with disgust, even though Cruz identifies them both as “two white men trying to be part of the blues.” It gives the story urgency, defines Travers, and makes the records seem even more important– the last pure pieces of the blues.

Final Thoughts On CROSSROAD BLUES

CROSSROAD BLUES works as a great noir that captures the spirit of American music history. While the story may be a bit long, it manages to keep the reader going and add new folds to the mystery. It does require a certain degree of musical knowledge to fully appreciate. However, the mystery is enough that readers will want to learn about Robert Johnson after closing the cover.

Just don’t cross the roads after midnight.

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